Austrian Islam Bill Stirs Feelings of Alienation

Officials say the bill fosters the development of an 'Austrian-style Islam'; but critics say the legislation is discriminatory.

Albert Otti and Alkimos Sartoros
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The Vienna Islamic Center.
The Vienna Islamic Center.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Albert Otti and Alkimos Sartoros

DPA - Amid Europe-wide debates on extremism and integration, Austria is changing its law governing Islam. However, the changes risk deepening the rift between Muslims and the majority population.

"Muslims feel they are misunderstood and under suspicion," the Austrian Islamic Community, an umbrella organization, has said about the planned Islam law and the restrictions it contains.

On Wednesday, the bill is expected to pass in the Austrian parliament with the majority of social democrats and conservatives.

Despite the current frictions, the Islamic community was a main driver behind the project to update the rudimentary law that had governed relations between the state and Islam since 1912.

The bill contains several provisions that will make life easier for the nearly 600,000 Muslims among Austria's 8.6 million inhabitants, the second-largest religious group behind Catholics.

For example, Muslim clerics gain the right to visit hospital patients, soldiers and prisoners. In addition, schools and other public institutions will have to offer food in line with Muslim rules.

On the other hand, the bill stresses that national law stands above Muslim sharia law, a provision that is absent in Austrian laws governing other religions.

'Austrian-style Islam'

The bill also stops the deployment and payment of imams by Turkey and other countries, as it bans foreign financing and sets up a Muslim theology seminar to train Muslim clergy in Vienna.

Foreign Affairs and Integration Minister Sebastian Kurz says he seeks the development of an "Austrian-style Islam," and he thinks that Austria-trained clergy would find it easier to connect with local Muslim youths, and fight radicalization.

"We need models, especially for young people, and that's where the imams come in," the 28-year-old conservative told dpa.

However, Muslims criticize politicians for linking the debate on updating the Islam bill with the issue of extremism.

"The talks about the changes we sought were overshadowed by Islamic State terrorism and the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen," said Carla Baghajati, the Islamic Community's spokeswoman.

In the wake of the shootings by Islamist extremists in Paris last month, senior regional leaders in the Social Democratic Party had called for sanctions against those who resist integration into society, indirectly referring to Muslims.

These ideas were welcomed by the far-right Freedom Party, which is supported by around 25 percent of voters according to current polls, head-to-head with each of the government coalition parties, the Social Democratic Party and the People's Party.

Nearly 200 radicals from Austria have travelled to Syria and Iraq, to join the Islamic State fighters, according to the interior ministry.

Radicalization could not be stopped with the new law, but rather with special programs such as an existing extremism hotline for concerned parents, said Thomas Schmidinger, a political scientist and expert on political Islam.

"All the law does is treat Muslims unequally," the Vienna University scholar said, pointing to the Russian orthodox church, which continues to receive Russian funds.

The Austrian Muslim Youth organization goes one step further and argues that the new Islam law could further alienate Muslim youths and drive them into the hands of radicals such as the Islamic State.

"It supports the arguments and charges brought forward by radical agitators," the youth group said.

Austrian Muslim Youth and several groups representing Muslims of Turkish origin plan to try to bring down the new Islam law in a suit at Austria's Constitutional Court.

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